What scientific research says about Imposter Syndrome

By Helene Choo on October 17, 2020

Many of us are familiar with the imposter syndrome. If not the name, then at least the feelings of inadequacy it designates. Where do these feelings come from? Why do we feel them, and what can we do to alleviate them?

You'll find the answers to all these questions and more in this blog post.


Imposter syndrome is not an officially recognized psychiatric disorder. This means that there is no defined list of symptoms or proven treatments. Plus, we can't even agree on a single cause for this issue. It's most likely a combination of various innate and environmental factors that contributes to imposter syndrome. This blog post will focus on the origins most frequently mentioned in research.

Regardless of the fact that imposter syndrome is still a relatively "new" concept for science, many renowned psychologists have recognized it as a prevalent phenomenon that is worth researching and is in urgent need of addressing for the benefit of our current society.

The origins of imposter syndrome

Disjunction self-assessment vs. actual capabilities


According to social psychologist and researcher David Dunning, people are generally bad at assessing their own capabilities. One consequence of this is what is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect: incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their actual abilities.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have the people who suffer from imposter syndrome: those who severely underestimate their actual abilities.

The original "discoverers" of Imposter Syndrome, clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, theorized that the childhoods of those who fall victim to it can generally be classified into 2 categories:

  1. The child in question was designated the "smart one" of the family, the almost-genius who could achieve anything they ever wanted without having to work too hard for it. When they inevitably began to come up short, they would start believing that luck, not merit, was the source of their success.
  2. This time, a different child in the family or in close proximity is branded the "smart one", with the child in question being told they were the "charming" or "sensitive one". This would lead to them believing that they could never be the "smart one" and start attributing their achievements to social manipulation.

Pressure to achieve in a pre-defined role


Our society has increasingly evolved to value achievement over effort. This can lead to a belief that you're only worthy if your achievements keep piling up. However, that does not generally happen, leading to feelings of fraudulence and imposter syndrome.

Children whose parents place a lot of importance on achievement, or even worse, alternate between over-praise and criticism, tend to grow up with a higher likelihood of suffering from imposter syndrome.

It's not just a general pressure to succeed that drives us towards imposter syndrome, but also specific pressures to succeed at a particular role. This role could be work-related, like a manager role, or non-work-related, like the role of a partner, parent, friend, mentor, etc.

We can all picture the perfect version of each role we're supposed to fulfil, so it makes sense that many of us would feel inadequate compared to this ideal.

Perceived differences and embarking on new journeys

Individuals who feel like they differ in any way from the norm (in race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, interests) tend to be more susceptible to imposter syndrome. They might attribute successes to not be due to their own hard work, but to sympathy from others. This is particularly true for many people from minority backgrounds.

People who are starting a new chapter in their lives also tend to fall prey to imposter syndrome thoughts. A prime example of this is PhD students. As they're often told that they should become leading experts in their respective fields of study, they experience enormous amounts of internal pressure while trying to live up to this impossible standard. In addition, a lack of clear work structure and support exacerbates the issue.

If you're a PhD student struggling with imposter syndrome thoughts that are hindering you from being productive while maintaining your mental well-being, book a free coaching consultation and check out our coaching program specifically tailored to you.


What can we do to tackle imposter syndrome?

Keep track of compliments, accept praise, disown failures

In order to receive compliments, you need to be willing to accept praise first, which many women have a lot of trouble doing. It takes practice, but I promise that it will feel natural after a while. So the next time someone compliments you, instead of saying "not really" or countering with a self-deprecating remark, just test out a simple "thank you". Let me know how it feels!

Keeping track of compliments that you receive, for example by writing them down, can help you in times of massive self-doubt. When you're having imposter syndrome thoughts, pull out your list of compliments (or your gratitude journal) and try to remind yourself of what you're good at.

On the flip side, it might also help to write down what you perceive as your failures and try to disown them one by one. This means recognizing that oftentimes, you haven't actually failed, but many factors were beyond your control. Plus, failures are great learning moments, so try to make the most out of them!

Change your thinking pattern


Let's start with an example: Mark is studying hard for a certification in data analysis. The day of the exam, he tells his partner: "I'm sure I'll fail the first time, I just haven't studied enough. But hey, then I'll at least know the format of the questions for the next time." 2 weeks later: Mark passed the exam!

However, the thoughts that cross his mind are: "I must've gotten lucky! They only asked questions about the parts that I studied. Or this exam was a particularly easy one."

Does this sound familiar to you?

Because imposter syndrome sufferers underestimate their actual abilities, they tend to predict that they will fail at whatever assessment they're facing, be it a presentation at work or a driving test. And when they do succeed, they attribute the result to luck. 

The next time you find yourself predicting failure, take a moment to flip these thoughts. List all the rational reasons why you would succeed (you studied hard enough, you have enough experience, etc.) and paint a mental image of what success would look like to you.

And when you do succeed, give yourself a massive pat on the shoulder and celebrate, because you've definitely earned it!

Of course, this is easier said than done, but like with all habits, creating this one will take both practice and patience.

Stop striving for perfection 

The former strategy is linked to this one. If you regularly set perfectionist goals for yourself, you'll fall short of them every single time. This then fuels your imposter syndrome thoughts and tendency to predict failure for yourself. The result is a downward spiral into anxiety and stress.

Once you start realizing that no one is perfect, and that perfect is not expected of you, you'll learn to accept that you did something "well enough", and that that's a reason to be proud of yourself. 

Talk to other people and share your experiences

Talking to others can have a two-fold benefit: firstly, imparting your knowledge and experience in your areas of expertise to your juniors can boost your  confidence in your abilities and remind you of what you're good at. Secondly, talking about your imposter syndrome thoughts can lead to others sharing theirs with you. While talking to other people about your perceived weaknesses can seem daunting, it can really help to foster more of a sense of belonging.

No doubt that if you share your feelings of inadequacy, others will let you know how much they look up to you, and even admit that they sometimes feel like frauds themselves. You'll realize that you're not alone in this, and that you can support each other in overcoming imposter syndrome.

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Article written by Helene Choo

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